Death’s Door Review

Death’s Door is one of those games that grabs you and doesn’t let go. Thanks to a gratifying combination of exploration and combat gameplay loops that keep the player engaged, as well as an ultra-stylized, low-poly fantasy setting reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda mixed with a Studio Ghibli fairy tale, Death’s Door is a game that feels like it hits on all cylinders. Devolver Digital is known for publishing some of the highest quality indie titles so it’s no surprise that they latched onto this one. The developers, Acid Nerve, are a two person team who previously released the much smaller scale Titan Souls, a top-down pixelated boss rush game where one hit kills the bosses as well as the player. It feels like they took what they learned making that game and applied it to this, but increased the scope exponentially. Xbox and PC gamers are in for a treat with this one (it’s currently exclusive to those platforms) and it easily has the potential to be the next “indie darling”.

You play as a crow working a nine-to-five job at the Reaping Commission Headquarters as a sort of grim reaper. Workers at the Commission get assignments to retrieve specific souls by any means necessary. The game starts with you being dropped off by a floating bus outside your seemingly bureaucratic job. The office is located in a dilapidated city called the Hall of Doors, made up of many floating platforms most of which are connected by stairs. Some have typical street decorations like benches and street lamps, while others have buildings like a small bar or the actual office area with falls full of file drawers. This is the hub world in the game, where you can upgrade your skills and access all the different doors to various locations. You are assigned a soul to collect and the first door appears up a flight of stairs.

There are a variety of NPC’s in this area – your crow co-workers (crow-workers lol – ed). Some of them give you the typical office jargon but with an aviary spin, while others fill out the narrative, explaining to you that the souls are what enable them to create the door portals, so it’s something of a never-ending cycle. Your first target, a large plant-like creature with dangerous, spike-covered tentacle vines, awaits you after a short tutorial area. Even at this early juncture, it starts to become clear that the bosses in this game will be much more fleshed out than the bosses in Titan Souls. After defeating the plant boss you are in the process of gaining its soul when a door appears and a large crow pops out, knocks you out, and steals the soul. When you finally come to your journey begins, and over the course of ten-plus hours, you’ll discover that things are not at all what they seem back at the office. Your journey has you traverse over a dozen distinct locations filled with secrets and enemies, as well as a humorous and unique cast of side characters that had me smiling at almost every encounter.

The world design and the stellar art direction employed in its creation are what sets Death’s Door apart. The low-poly art has a smooth quality to it, each object on its own is somewhat simple but when they’re combined they truly shine and the world comes alive; the developers have created a world that’s equal parts fairy tale and Dark Souls. The path you take through each area has you snaking through and looping back around opening multiple shortcuts, which are very helpful. These let you quickly get back to where you previously were whenever you die. There’s something about finding a shortcut that causes satisfaction, (and at some points even amazement) where you think “Wow, I can’t believe these sections are connected”. Despite the serpentine and sometimes maze-like designs of the levels, their layouts all feel very natural. The Estate of the Urn Witch area is an elaborate garden with low walls, hedges, and cobblestone paths. The interior levels also retain a sense of believability in their architecture. There isn’t any map feature, but as long as you keep your bearings most of the time you’ll have no problem navigating each area. 

Another element of the design creates even more satisfaction: discovering secrets. Death’s Door has a number of secrets. The game utilizes an isometric viewpoint which gives the designers many opportunities to hide items throughout the levels. The camera view is typically fixed at one angle, although you can move the camera slightly in all directions with the right joystick but the angle itself doesn’t change. In addition, there are certain points where you might go around the corner of a building or a wall and the camera will rotate around making you visible again. When this happens there is always something hidden nearby, but once you go back around the corner the view goes back to normal. The game employs a Metroidvania-esque style of level design. Very early after your adventure begins you’ll start to come across various sections that are inaccessible. Sometimes you’re even able to see a soul orb, shiny thing, or another secret teasing you just out of reach, but you’ll just have to make a note and come back once you’ve found the correct ability. In addition there are a few mysterious structures and items that remain out of reach even with your full arsenal of abilities. In most cases there are clues located in various forms for many of the mysterious spots, although some must be solved on your own. For the most part, the exploration is superb and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. The one frustrating aspect I found was the occasional narrow walkways. That’s one flaw found in many isometric games – it can be difficult to manoeuvre along narrow diagonal paths. Fortunately however, there’s no fall damage when falling to the ground (you are a bird after all), and if you fall off into a pit or the water you only lose one health point.

The other characters you encounter throughout your travels bring the world to life just as much as the environmental design. Most of them have multiple lines of dialogue, and just like your crow co-workers some add to the narrative while others add a comedic tone. There are several memorable characters, both because of their design as well as the interactions you have with each of them – many of which look like they would fit right into one of Studio Ghibli’s fantasy films. There’s a guy with a pot of soup for a head who is aptly named Pothead. He is very jovial and always seems to appear along your path during the first section of the game; because of this he reminded me very much of Siegmeyer of Catarina (the Onion Knight) from Dark Souls. He tends to spill his head soup while talking to you and at one point he offers you some of the soup. There’s another cuisine-related character with just as much charm and oddness, Jefferson. He is the proprietor of the Stranded Sailor and will fix you a nourishing bowl of squid soup whenever you like. While eating the soup he even goes the extra mile by giving you hints about the locations of various secrets.

The combat is probably the weakest link in what is close to an unbreakable chain of gameplay, although it’s still more than satisfactory and I found it enjoyable throughout the game. You have a basic melee attack that can be combo’d a certain number of times depending on which of the five main weapons you are using – these five are the only main weapons found in the game. You start with a regular sword and there is also an umbrella that can be found nearby. The other three weapons can be obtained at various points across the game world. Each weapon has slightly different stats, including damage, swing speed, and arc size. The starting sword and the umbrella’s stats are identical except that the umbrella does half as much damage. There are no difficulty settings but using only this weapon for the whole game could be considered a hard mode, and will reward you with an achievement. Holding the right trigger allows you to do a charge attack with your main weapon; you can release it at any time for an attack but if you hold it long enough you’ll get a visual and auditory indication that it’s charged and will deal extra damage if you land a hit. Despite being a bird you cannot fly, but instead you can do a dodge roll, which gives you a moment of invincibility. If you attack with the right trigger after a roll you will do a strong overhand attack, but I found myself rarely using that method.

Most of the areas have set enemies waiting for you in certain spots  that you can fight or run past, but certain places force you to fight waves of enemies that spawn in through temporary doors similar to those you use to travel back and forth to the hub world. The area gets closed off for the duration of the fight and once you clear the last wave you can proceed. These usually up the intensity of the gameplay, and I thought they were a good way to challenge the player. They are also spaced out well and helped keep the pace of the game interesting. One aspect of the combat that some people might not like is that there is no lock-on function, but after playing through the game I think it’s fine without it. Another mechanic that might seem like it’s missing is the ability to heal, there are no consumable items in the game so the only way to heal is by finding seeds and planting them in the green pots scattered about the land. The plant grows immediately and you can then use it heal yourself right away, but if you need to heal again you’ll have to find another seed and another pot. Once they’ve been initially planted the plants regrow each time you die or return to the area later.

Besides the regular attack, I made use of the ranged magic attacks as much as I could. You start with an arrow attack that can be used by holding the left trigger to aim and then pressing the B button to charge the attack. This also gives off an audiovisual indication when it’s charged. At first I found this button combination a bit awkward, but I quickly got used to it and I found myself instinctively knowing when the attack was charged and letting go the split second it was ready. There is also a fireball attack that can hit multiple targets in a row, and a bomb attack that creates a large explosion damaging everything in the blast radius including yourself. All four of these abilities are used to traverse the areas. The arrow can be shot through fire urns to light other urns, and once you get the fireball you can light urns with that (the urns act as triggers in many cases to open gates and doors). The bomb can be used to blow up certain walls that are marked in blue. The final ranged weapon is a hookshot that lets you grapple to certain things in the environment. Each of these abilities is acquired after a specific enemy encounter, each one sees you battle four waves of enemies that spawn in through the temporary doors. These battles are tougher than the normal wave battles, in part due to the combinations of enemies that appear; there’s usually a mix of ranged and melee enemies, which requires you to make quick decisions. 

You have a magic gauge directly underneath your health indicator at the top left of the screen, and you start with four units in each. Each time you use a magic ability you lose one point in the bar, but when you hit an enemy with your sword or hit a breakable object in the environment you regain a point. This encourages a healthy mix of attacks which I thought was a nice implementation. In addition, most of the breakable objects rebuild themselves a few seconds after they are destroyed. After I acquired each new ability I did some backtracking to see if I could find anything useful. The most common thing you find is soul orbs, each of which contain 100 souls. These can be used to upgrade your stats back at the hub. One hundred souls is pretty good considering how the enemies barely give any. The upgrade options are limited, there are only four stats that can be increased: attack power, combo and charge speed, movement and dodge speed, and magic power.

The boss battles are one of the high points in an already stellar game. Each of the three main bosses has multiple lines of humorous dialogue, some even follow you through their dungeon levels making appearances as you progress, trying to dissuade you from continuing. The actual boss battles were a lot of fun, although they aren’t that challenging once you learn the patterns. The two final bosses on the other hand are both a good challenge and the second of the two is a truly epic fight, combining many different elements of the game into the boss fight. 

The color palette selection for each of the areas are fantastic, some of them are vibrant colors like the Stranded Sailor area while others appear duller, like some of the cave areas, but the various sources of light and various details like the green flora or pinkish-red mushrooms make those areas stand out as well. Some of the enemies might look similar at first especially since a few use the same base model; however, once you’re accustomed to the game world and its denizens you’ll have no problem telling them apart. The ones that do use the same 3D model have different colored textures that indicate what type of attacks they will perform. The game takes a very cinematic approach when introducing the main characters, changing the camera angle to accentuate the subject. I also liked the distinct font used when it appears overlaying a full-screen view of a boss, introducing them. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the game’s art direction is when you die. “DEATH” appears as a cut-out on the screen with black all around it and the enemies that killed you are still visible and moving around through the letter window.

I’ve already said that so many other aspects were stand-out elements in the game, but the soundtrack in Death’s Door is on another level. Each track does a fantastic job evoking the feelings of each particular moment. There are a total of fifty tracks in the game. A lot of them are centered around a piano with various other background instruments, while some sound more like a full orchestra. Many remind me of what you might hear in a PS1 or PS2-era JRPG while others have more of a Zelda quality to them. One aspect of the music that helps it stand out is how intense it becomes when you are in the middle of a battle. The sound effects are also fantastic, there are so many little details that bring the world to life. I liked how there was a faint sound of frogs croaking in the background of the Overgrown Ruins area. Another background noise that caught my attention and fit perfectly was the constant clatter of typewriter keys in the main room of the Reaping Commission Headquarters.

My playtime was around thirteen hours when I beat the main boss, by which point I was around 80% completion of discovering all the secrets. I thought it would be a quick clean-up for the rest but I soon found out that there’s a fair amount of additional end game content. The achievement list is somewhat unorthodox with many of them being pretty original; this however means a few are missable. My advice for achievement hunters is to read over the list to get an idea of what is needed. On the other hand, I haven’t had to look up any videos or guides to find any of the secrets so far. This end game content feels more esoteric, but also just as engaging as the rest of the game.

Conclusion

As of right now, Death’s Door is definitely in the running for my game of the year, probably at the top spot. I think it will appeal to many other gamers as well. A wonderful action-exploration adventure filled with humor and bizarre characters, all taking place in a fairy-talesque land with a gorgeous low-poly aesthetic. If this has even slightly caught your attention ahead of launch, you should pick it up. I hope Acid Nerve will expand this IP because they’ve made something special here. I’d love to see it continue.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Wonderfully illustrated, Fairy-talesque world filled with charm and mystery
  • Soundtrack and audio design are both fantastic, helping bring the world alive and accentuate the gameplay
  • Metroidvania style exploration, new abilities open up previously inaccessible areas
  • End game content gives players even more exploration-packed gameplay
Bad
  • No map feature, so some areas might be a little confusing at first
  • Maneuvering on some of the smaller walkways can be frustrating due to the isometric view
9.5
Excellent
Gameplay - 9.4
Graphics - 9.8
Audio - 9.9
Longevity - 9
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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